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Developer Column – How We Got Here

Hal Hanlin Posted:
Developer Journals 0

Fair warning: bragging to follow. Not about me, but about the team I work with.

A year ago, the thing I heard more than anything else (outside of Trion) was how crazy we were. And in a way they were right, but that’s the part of our culture I love the most. We’re all a little crazy; willing to dance around in the giant’s back yard. Now that we have proven we’re here for real after releasing more live, dynamic content than anyone is capable of putting out, I get questions about how we managed to do it and not grind the team down to nothing in the process.

The ideas below are not my own. Looking back at how we got here, these traits and habits are defining features of Rift’s ongoing development:

  • Build the team with the best people you can find. Sometimes this means saying no to a pretty good candidate when you desperately need one more pair of hands, because "settling for good" is a bad long-term idea. Sometimes it means telling a co-worker that you will not hire their best friend because they probably would not be able to move at the speed we do. By holding out, you get people who can be on their feet in a couple weeks instead of months.
  • Trust your team. Once you have hired them, trust them. It is possible to set goals, maintain schedules, and achieve profound results without riding the people doing the work about every little detail. If you hired the best, treat them that way. That includes riding them about delivery times. I found to my delight that when we gave clear instructions and then got the hell out of the way, the teams nailed their deliverables *far* more often than they missed them. If they were there late it was because they knew it needed to be done. It was not because a manager told them to crunch.

  • Be ready to kill ideas, even some good ones. The first few times I had to kill a precious idea, it was tough on everyone involved because I botched my critique. It became emotional. The designers in question felt man-handled; others in management wondered why there were stormy clouds on my side of the building. My mistake was letting emotion factor at all. When we cut a feature now, it is not personal. It is not a judgment against the person, it's just something we cannot find a place for in the game. That's all.
  • Admit when you screw up. I have cut things that seemed like they’d never get to shippable, only to resurrect them later and have them become defining portions of RIft. You like those invasions? Enjoying those world events? Yeah, I killed both of them at one point. Look up a couple paragraphs to the "Trust your team" line. The team came back to me and insisted they could get them there and explained how.  I trusted them, so when they volunteered to take it on themselves, they proved they were right and the game got better.
  • Above all, be brutally honest. Give and receive brutal feedback on content or features, but do not attack the person. The Rift team has the thickest skin of any developers I've ever worked with. When a strong, passionate debate about something in game is heard, it's amazing. It means that both sides care and are willing to participate in some constructive conflict to achieve excellence. That is part of trusting your team too.

Everything mentioned above HAS to go both ways. Occasionally the teams would come to management and tell us straight up: "No, we can't do that by then." At that moment, as a manager you either call them a liar (maybe not aloud, but your actions yell it) and force them to try to hit an impossible deadline, or you do everything I listed above: You remember that you hired the best, you trust them to know better than you do what they can and cannot do, you kill your own precious ideas, admit that you screwed up, and then you work with them to fix it.

We were never perfect. I can look back and wish I had handled a situation differently, but the team was and is amazing. As I write this, it becomes really clear that this philosophy permeates all of Trion, not just the people implementing on the game side. If you have never worked in a place where you can watch your bosses admit their mistakes and have them work with you to get it right... it defies explanation. But it's why we did what no one thought we could do. It’s how we continue to define how MMOs should be made and supported.

Oh, and (shameless plug) we continue to build and improve our team, so…


Hal Hanlin